The saying goes "you are what you eat." Here, registered dietitians advise on how food impacts short- and long-term chronic inflammation and how it can help you find relief.
Whether the result of an injury, illness or unknown cause, chronic pain and inflammation can be debilitating. Working with your primary care physician or another specialist to find the root cause of your pain and inflammation is sometimes a long process, but there is hope for finding relief. Adjusting your diet can alleviate both short- and long-term chronic symptoms and working with a dietitian can help you reach your nutrition goals.
To find out more about how food can impact your chronic pain and inflammation, and how a dietitian can help, we spoke with registered dietitians Melissa Parisi, RD, and Melissa Wadolowski, RD, LDN, CHC, CDCES.
How Food Affects Physical Health
There is a nutritional component to almost all medical conditions, including those causing chronic pain and inflammation. “Food has both an immediate effect on how we feel, and an impact on our long-term health,” says Wadolowski. “It can impact our state of mind, our ability to concentrate and also how we’re feeling physically. When you’re eating a healthy diet, your overall health will improve.”
Not only can food affect our baseline health, but it can also act as a treatment for side effects from medications and other medical treatments. “In the process of trying to heal ourselves, it is possible for our bodies to be thrown off balance with medication. A change in diet can address the root cause of chronic pain and inflammation, as well as the unwanted side effects from other treatments,” says Parisi.
Food’s Impact on Chronic Pain and Inflammation
When thinking about treating chronic pain and inflammation, both Parisi and Wadolowski advise reducing the amount of processed foods in your diet, especially those with added sugar. “Think about how you can cut back on the processed foods that may throw off the balance of your gut and other aspects of your health,” says Parisi. “While the types of foods we eat matter, the quality of those foods is just as important. For instance, we don’t need to completely cut out carbs to have a healthy diet, but instead, should think about whether the carbs we’re consuming are made from whole grains that give us plenty of fiber.”
In addition, increasing foods with healthy fats — like omega-3s found in seafood, chia seeds, flaxseed and walnuts — and fiber can help relieve chronic pain and inflammation. “Gut health plays a huge role in inflammation and the immune system, which is why we should focus on fiber in our diets. Fiber helps feed the beneficial bacteria in our gut and gives us a boost of antioxidants,” says Parisi. “It’s also a good idea to increase the amount of probiotics in your diet by eating fermented foods or yogurt with live and active cultures to balance out your gut health.”
Specific herbs and spices can also help reduce pain and inflammation throughout the body. “Turmeric and ginger are both excellent anti-inflammatory ingredients, either as supplements or added to food,” says Wadolowski.
Seeking Professional Guidance
Every person’s needs are different when it comes to pain management and nutrition. Wadolowski suggests people seek professional guidance as soon as their chronic inflammation and pain start negatively impacting their day-to-day quality of life. “There’s not just one universal healthy meal plan for every person. As dietitians, we can help each individual establish a healthy baseline, optimize what they’re already doing as far as treatment, and identify the best nutritional changes for each individual,” she says.
Registered dietitians are trained in medical nutrition therapy—they can treat specific medical conditions. “For example, it can be overwhelming to read about which diet is best to help mitigate kidney disease symptoms. But we can read your labs and understand the science behind your condition to provide customized nutrition advice and guidance,” says Wadolowski.
Not only do dietitians help their patients understand how to adjust their diets to find relief, but they also help explain why those diets work. That way, patients can use nutrition advice to make informed decisions on what to eat on a daily basis.